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What Are the Roles of International Organizations?

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Amara has spent some years of her life as a science teacher. She is a graduate in life sciences and has a master's in social sciences.

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International Organizations: Roles and Issues

At the heart of the value of any international organization is the question of the roles it can or should play. In essence, we have to ask ourselves: What is it that we want international organizations to do, and how well are they going to do it?

In this article, we will examine their wide scope of activity. The discussion will particularly emphasize:

  1. their political roles
  2. their other roles.

1. Political Roles

The United Nations and many other IGOs (intergovernmental organizations) play a variety of political roles that focus on trying to prevent international conflict or on restoring the peace when violence occurs.

1. Maintaining Peace

International organizations play both a passive and an active role in avoiding conflicts.

One role for IGOs is the passive one of a forum in which members publicly air their points of view and privately negotiate their differences.

The UN is thus like a theatre or set where the world drama can be played out without some of the dire consequences if another "shooting locale" is chosen.

This public debate aspect involves denouncing your opponents, defending your actions, trying to influence world opinion, and winning symbolic victories. One scholar thus termed this function the "Grand Debate Approach to Peace."

In this role, the UN serves as a sort of safety valve that allows the venting of frustrations in a controlled environment.

The UN also serves as a basis for diplomatic discussion among its members. In addition to the diplomatic interchange that occurs within the main organs, the UN sponsors many other conferences that address specific problems, such as arms control.

2. Resolving Political Disputes

International organizations also regularly play a more active role in resolving political disputes. They perform the following functions:

  1. Inquiry: fact-finding by neutral investigators.
  2. Good offices: encouraging parties to negotiate; acting as a neutral setting for negotiations.
  3. Mediation: making suggestions about possible solutions.
  4. Arbitration: using a special panel to find a solution that all parties agree to accept in advance.
  5. Adjudication: submitting disputes to an international court.

These activities do not often make the headlines, but they are a vital part of conflict avoidance. For example, in studying the effectiveness of the UN in this area, one scholar found that, of over 130 disputes considered by the UN from 1946 to 1977, all but a dozen were settled successfully.

3. Restoring the Peace

In addition to its diplomatic resources, the United Nations has at least a limited ability to intervene militarily in a dispute.

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There is also a limited history of other organizations, such as the Organization of American States, undertaking collective military action. In the UN, this process is often called "peacekeeping." It is normally conducted under the
auspices of the Security Council, although the General Assembly has sometimes authorized action.

The Theory of Peacekeeping

In theory, but not in practice, the peacekeeping function of international organization rests on the concept of collective security. This idea was first embodied in the covenant of the League of Nations and is also reflected in the charter of the United Nations. Its basic tenets are these:

  1. All countries forswear the use of force except in self-defence.
  2. Everyone agrees that peace is inseparable. An attack on one is an attack on all.
  3. Everyone pledges to join together to halt aggression and restore peace, and all agree to supply whatever material or personnel resources are necessary to that end.
  4. The peacekeeping force will be under the control of an international organization.

If you think about it, this theory is something like the theory that governs domestic law enforcement.

  • First, acts of violence are considered a transgression against the collective.
  • Second, except in self-defense, we cannot resort to violence to settle domestic disputes.
  • Third, we rely on a collective security force.
There are various political and other roles International Organizations have to play.

There are various political and other roles International Organizations have to play.

2. Other Roles

In addition to maintaining and restoring the peace, international organizations engage in a wide variety of other activities.

1. Law Promotion

An important and expanding role of international organizations is their contribution to international law. The signatories of the UN charter and other constitutions incur obligations to obey the principles therein.

International organizations also sponsor multilateral treaties, which may establish a presumption of law.

The resolutions of international representative bodies, such as the General Assembly, also contribute to the growth of the law.

Finally, tribunals such as the International Court of Justice help establish legal precedent.

2. Promoting Arms Control and Disarmament

International organizations are not only involved in individual conflicts; they are concerned with conflict in general. Consequently, they are active on a number of fronts trying to regulate or eliminate the weapons of war.

3. Promoting the Quality of Human Existence

Perhaps the most significant contribution of international organizations to date has been in the area of individual human betterment.

A wide variety of IGOs and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) devote their energies to problems of the environment, humanitarian causes, economic progress, and social concerns such as health, nutrition, and literacy.

4. Promoting Self-Government

Yet another role of the UN and other IGOs is to encourage national self-determination.

The UN Trusteeship Council once oversaw the status of a large number of colonial dependencies, but with the wave of independence in recent decades, only one trust territory, Micronesia, remains under its direct auspices.

There are, however, a number of related issues that come before the UN. One is the case of Namibia (South West Africa). South Africa originally governed this territory on a mandate from the League of Nations and has refused to give up its hold despite UN and Organization of African Unity demands.

The question of the Palestinian people is another issue of national status that the UN (and the Arab League) has considered, and some countries have tried to introduce the status of Puerto Rico into the UN debate.

5. Promoting International Organization and Integration

A final role of the UN that deserves mention is its promotion of other international organizations.

The United Nations not only operates in association with a variety of other regional and specialized IGOs, it also grants consultative status to nearly 700 NGOs.

Thus, international organizations of all types cooperate to encourage and strengthen one another.

Bottom Line

Despite the theoretical ideals, in practice, the UN has been able to take only limited action in a limited number of armed conflicts.

Between 1945 and 1980, the UN mounted fifteen operations that utilized armed units and eight military observation missions. Several characteristics of these missions can be noted.

  • First, most have occurred in Third World locations, such as the Middle East, Cyprus, the Congo, the India/Pakistan border, Yemen, and Indonesia.
  • Second, the UN forces have generally utilized military contingents from smaller or nonaligned powers. Canada, the Scandinavian countries, Ireland, and India are some of the most frequent contributors.
  • Third, UN forces have generally acted as buffers between forces and have not conducted active military operations. Instead, they have positioned themselves between the combatants. At times, this provides an "excuse" to stop fighting, and at other times, given the status of UN personnel, it provides an inhibiting effect.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Amara

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